Illus­tra­tion by Marc Cha­gall, from The Magi­cians by I.L. Peretz in 1917, image from the Nation­al Library of Russia

For Jews all over the world, Passover is the fes­ti­val of free­dom. Spe­cif­ic rit­u­als and tra­di­tion­al foods, as well as broad­er inter­pre­ta­tions of lib­er­a­tion from enslave­ment are all parts of the eight-day obser­vance. Children’s books about the hol­i­day reflect these dif­fer­ent ele­ments of the cel­e­bra­tion, from the his­to­ry of the Exo­dus from Egypt, to tales of fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships reflect­ed in Passover prepa­ra­tions and the elab­o­rate seder meal. Two children’s pic­ture books remind read­ers of the holiday’s essen­tial core, strip­ping away many of the exter­nal details to focus on endur­ing val­ues such as faith and courage in the face of unimag­in­able obstacles.

In The Magician’s Vis­it: A Passover Tale (Viking Pen­guin, 1993), award-win­ning author Bar­bara Dia­mond Goldin retells I. L. Peretz’s 1904 Yid­dish short sto­ry The Magi­cian,“ about a poor Jew­ish cou­ple unable to afford even the basic neces­si­ties for their seder. When the prophet Eli­jah pro­vides all they need, they are fear­ful and con­fused. With haunt­ing water­col­or sketch­es by Robert Andrew Park­er, the book’s myth­i­cal arche­types of pre­car­i­ous shtetl life become real for young chil­dren, as the hus­band and wife from Peretz’s sto­ry accept their plight with humil­i­ty and are reward­ed for their faith. (Uri Shule­vitz also adapt­ed and illus­trat­ed the same sto­ry in 1973, with small, intense black-and-white drawings.)

The Secret Seder (Hype­r­i­on Books for Chil­dren), writ­ten by acclaimed author Doreen Rap­pa­port and illus­trat­ed by Calde­cott Award win­ner Emi­ly Arnold McCul­ly, also recalls a Passover meal dimin­ished by loss. In World War II France, a Jew­ish fam­i­ly is forced to choose between risk­ing their lives or ful­fill­ing their reli­gious oblig­a­tions. Although Eli­jah does not lit­er­al­ly come to their res­cue, their com­mu­ni­ty invokes the prophet’s pres­ence and defies the Nazis’ attack on their lives and tra­di­tions. Both books offer a view of redemp­tion, pro­vid­ing a sense of hope with­out min­i­miz­ing the harsh cir­cum­stances test­ing Jew­ish belief.

Both books offer a view of redemp­tion, pro­vid­ing a sense of hope with­out min­i­miz­ing the harsh cir­cum­stances test­ing Jew­ish belief.

The Magician’s Vis­it has min­i­mal char­ac­ter devel­op­ment and lit­tle dra­mat­ic ten­sion. As Goldin explains in her after­word, the prophet Eli­jah plays a major role, his pow­er­ful sym­bol­ism inhab­it­ing many oth­er Jew­ish cus­toms. Par­tic­i­pants in the sederopen the door and invite him in, and he also pre­sides over a baby’s bris and is called upon to wel­come a new week at the con­clu­sion of the Sab­bath. The prophet Malachi, in the epony­mous Bib­li­cal book , announces that the com­ing of the Mes­si­ah will be pre­ced­ed by the return of Eli­jah him­self; in times of fear, this promise has assumed even greater impor­tance. In Goldin’s nar­ra­tive, the inhab­i­tants of an unnamed small town in east­ern Europe are get­ting ready for Passover, the hol­i­day requir­ing more prepa­ra­tion than any oth­er in the Jew­ish cal­en­dar. The book’s first sen­tence casu­al­ly men­tions that a magi­cian came to town,” sug­gest­ing an occur­rence no more notable than any oth­er. Indeed, this magi­cian at first seems to be just one more poor Jew. His mag­ic involves ordi­nary objects: he trans­forms rags into gold­en rib­bons, and pulls turkeys out of his boots. Hay­im-Jon­ah and Rivkah-Bailah are strug­gling to sur­vive; their predica­ment is unremarkable.

Peretz, in Goldin’s retelling, gives almost no infor­ma­tion about his char­ac­ters’ plight, aside from the fact that Hay­im-Jon­ah, a lum­ber­man, has had mis­for­tunes.” The win­ter had been severe enough that they would not, prover­bial­ly, wish (it) on even their worst ene­my.” The couple’s child­less­ness goes unmen­tioned, yet it adds a poignant tone to their iso­la­tion. Hay­im-Jon­ah is con­vinced that God will pro­vide what they need for Passover. As Jew­ish law demands, they con­tin­ue to give char­i­ty even while they have bare­ly enough to sur­vive. When they open the door to a stranger on the eve of the hol­i­day, they apol­o­gize to him for their inad­e­qua­cies as hosts. In the low­est emo­tion­al point for this deeply reli­gious man, Hay­im-Jon­ah responds to the vis­i­tor, I’m sorry…but we have no Seder.” Iron­i­cal­ly, although he had pre­vi­ous­ly rep­ri­mand­ed his more prac­ti­cal wife for her sad­ness, he now shares her despair. At this point in the sto­ry, young chil­dren may expe­ri­ence the couple’s dis­ap­point­ment, although adult read­ers will rec­og­nize the magician’s true identity.

In 1923, Marc Cha­gall illus­trat­ed an edi­tion of Peretz’s sto­ry in the orig­i­nal Yid­dish. Although Parker’s art­work for the book is far more somber in tone, with dark, mut­ed col­ors dom­i­nat­ing, his pic­ture of the magi­cian as Eli­jah recalls Chagall’s mys­ti­cal joy. His face emerges from the shad­ows bathed in white, with two white cir­cles in the back­ground sug­gest­ing wings or haloes. He holds out two gold can­dle­sticks with bright orange flames. Yet even when he caus­es a table­cloth to drop from the ceil­ing and matzah, wine, and a shankbone to mate­ri­al­ize from nowhere, the man and his wife are not con­vinced and decide to con­sult their rab­bi. Any child who has exam­ined Elijah’s cup at his or her fam­i­ly seder to see if some wine has been con­sumed will be wait­ing for the rabbi’s deci­sion on the dif­fer­ence between mag­ic and mir­a­cles. His answer is help­ful­ly spe­cif­ic: mag­ic is a decep­tion,” but if the matzah crum­bles, the visitor’s gifts are real.

Any child who has exam­ined Elijah’s cup at his or her fam­i­ly seder to see if some wine has been con­sumed will be wait­ing for the rabbi’s deci­sion on the dif­fer­ence between mag­ic and miracles.

In The Secret Seder, no such feel­ing of assur­ance is avail­able to the young Jew­ish boy and his par­ents attempt­ing to pass as Chris­tians in Nazi-occu­pied France. The boy lives in ter­ror of the black boot men” who take Jews away; his own grand­par­ents have dis­ap­peared. Yet he secret­ly prac­tices recit­ing the Four Ques­tions with his moth­er, and when the first night of Passover arrives, his father leads him to the for­est to share a secret seder­with a group of ter­ri­fied but resis­tant Jew­ish men. His father rea­sons over his mother’s fears that Just being a Jew is dan­ger­ous.” Here the dan­ger is not only pover­ty, but death. The men are recit­ing the evening prayers togeth­er before the seder begins, each with a ragged coat over his head in place of a tallis. Some of the men are cry­ing. The boy vivid­ly remem­bers his grand­par­ents’ boun­ti­ful table of the pre­vi­ous year; here there is only one can­dle, wine, and one piece of matzah. The sor­row on the men’s pale faces and the drab col­ors of brown wood and cloth­ing are relieved by the bright light of the can­dle. No mag­i­cal fig­ure enters to reward their refusal to accept defeat.

Unlike Hayim-Jonah’s and Rivkah-Bailah’s peace­ful seder, this one is marked by con­tention. An old man, lack­ing a full Hag­gadah, reads from a ragged sheet of paper, which looks like a news­pa­per bring­ing the trag­ic events of the day to its read­ers. A heat­ed argu­ment, not unlike Tal­mu­dic dis­putes, ensues when the men dis­agree about the dif­fer­ent peri­ods of adver­si­ty in Jew­ish his­to­ry. Their anger and fear merge in one moment when a wood­cut­ter who had been stand­ing guard out­side sud­den­ly opens the door. Only his shoe and a nar­row part of his leg are vis­i­ble, mak­ing his iden­ti­ty unclear. McCul­ly shows all faces turned toward the stranger, some men ris­ing from their seats in expec­ta­tion of being seized by the ene­my. At the same time, the scene evokes the entrance of Eli­jah as a promise of deliv­er­ance. Lat­er, when the time arrives for open­ing the door for the prophet, only a cold blast of wind” enters. Again, the group’s expec­ta­tion is implic­it: No one speaks as we lis­ten to the wind.” Eli­jah does not enter, but one of the men declares the tra­di­tion­al, Next year, in Yerusha­lay­im,” fol­lowed by we shall come togeth­er for a great feast.”

The read­er knows what the man at the seder does not. Many Jews will die, but those who sur­vive will return to observe Passover, some with renewed hope. Not long after the War, the State of Israel will be found­ed, viewed as the ful­fill­ment of God’s promise by some, and by oth­ers as a sec­u­lar ful­fill­ment of mes­sian­ic hopes. The wan­der­ing magi­cian who vis­its Hay­im-Jon­ah and Riv­ka-Bailah is root­ed in shtetl life, famil­iar with their hum­ble prayers and hopes for mate­r­i­al bet­ter­ment. When the rab­bi assures them that their faith has not allowed them to be delud­ed by mag­ic, their seder has been redeemed. They will wait patient­ly and with­out a sense of urgency for Elijah’s lat­er arrival before the ulti­mate redemp­tion. The Jews of The Secret Seder can­not rely on unques­tion­ing faith, although their faith has not dis­ap­peared. Their own obsti­nate brav­ery has redeemed their Passover cel­e­bra­tion, fill­ing the silence when Eli­jah fails to arrive. Each book offers chil­dren a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive on Jew­ish resilience as they open the door.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.